Confucian beliefs

A Modern Confucianism? -现代儒学?

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China’s strategy of setting up institutions in partner countries to teach Chinese language and culture is increasingly being seen with suspicion and contempt. Swinburne University professor John Fitzgerald, who lived and studied in China, argues that with more than 500 Confucian Institutes in 140 countries, it should be widely recognised that the institutes have been directly instructed to promote particular aspects of Chinese governance that would make Chinese rule seem appealing. For example, some aspects of Confucianism that promote obedience and hierarchy are being pushed to make the Chinese Communist Party’s centralised and unified leadership acceptable to foreign publics.

Even at the recent annual conference for Confucian Institute directors, the Beijing-based Office of Chinese Language Council International made it clear that directors were expected to promote the strategic and foreign policy objectives of the government, especially with the recent Belt and Road Initiative announced as a major geo-political project that could transform global trade. The implication is that Confucius Institutes are going to be essential to China’s strategic planning for the government to maintain strong business and people-to-people links. Thus, while the US cuts its budget to African countries and makes inappropriate comments, with President Donald Trump describing African nations as “s***hole countries”, China and its consistent engagement is considered to be a stable alternative.

However, the nature of how Confucius Institutes are being used around the world has made some American and Australian authorities concerned whether Chinese professors and students could exploit access to universities to gather intelligence and sensitive research. Singapore has also been vocal over China’s covert “influence operations”, with former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan stating that as with the presence of any foreign power, Singaporeans should be aware of Beijing’s manipulations. By using a range of tactics, from official diplomacy to covert deployment of agents and influence operations, to sway decision-makers and public opinion leaders, the question remains: where does this leave Confucianism, and can the philosophy be separated from state propaganda?

In China’s long history, Confucian teachers performed priestly roles and justified the existence of the state as a legitimate form of rule, while the state, in turn, promoted Confucianism as the official ideology. The state apparatus functioned to institutionalise Confucian teachings like respect for authority through education courses, and by making Confucian texts the only content of imperial civil service examinations since the Sui dynasty (581–618). However, Confucianism was never a religion with an organized and exclusive membership, and there was no Confucian place of worship. Instead, Confucianism functioned as a belief system and ethical code throughout East Asia, where “to study religion and politics is to study the relationship between Confucianism and political practice” (Fetzer & Soper, 2010, p. 499). Even though few people identified themselves as Confucian followers, Confucian ethics and behavioural norms were part of how ordinary Chinese people saw the world.

Recently, the aim to modernise Confucianism has been a premise of many attempts to make Confucianism a compelling and relevant philosophy. Sometimes, this reconstruction takes the form of translating classical Confucian ideas in terms of extracting modern concepts like ‘justice’ and ‘social welfare’ from early texts (see for example Bai, 2008 and Fan, 2010). It may also involve the identification of timeless ‘core values’ of Confucianism that are recited in contemporary analysis, even as others that support practices that are now considered to be problematic, including gender discrimination or class hierarchy, are simply dismissed without any compelling explanation (Bell, 2006).

Moreover, it is not only about what is being interpreted in Confucianism, but who is doing the interpreting and application. The association of Confucianism with historically non-democratic states has led many to defend a kind of ‘authoritarian Confucianism’, which the government of China has used to its advantage. Confucian values are being used to construct a national identity to replace what is now seen as the ineffective ‘foreign’ ideologies of Marxism–Leninism in an attempt to secure the party-state’s leadership (Bell, 2015).

At the same time, others have approached interpreting a modern Confucianism through a commitment to liberal doctrines like human rights. Yet, it is important to ask whether these reconstructions of a ‘progressive Confucianism’ are only a reflection of the individual author’s philosophical commitments. The assumption is that Confucianism can only be relevant if it is adapted to liberal ideas of modernity, which are typically linked to democracy. But in doing so, a line is drawn between a past in which Confucian thought was relevant to analysing social and political life in China, and a present in which historical Confucianism is abandoned for a version that is conducive to Western standards of living.

Therefore, far from broadening Confucian thought to foreign audiences in a meaningful way, the philosophy ends up becoming interpreted to the extent where it is no longer recognisable as a Chinese political philosophy, or it simply becomes a narrow source of scholarly knowledge. As Jenco (2017) states, the problem is not that recent reconstructions are somehow ‘inauthentic’, but that they fail to consider the historical aspect of Confucianism that explains how Confucian philosophy was constructed in the first place. This approach involves reading the many versions of canonical texts and how they were interpreted by influential commentaries and key thinkers in different East Asian contexts. For example, Nylan argues that while current scholarship sees Confucius as the originator of Confucian philosophy, reading the texts in context will reveal “the marked propensity of the early compilers to borrow ideas and switch personae, which renders modern sectarian talk about ‘schools’ wildly anachronistic” (p. 425). Even by examining how Confucius is portrayed in the Zhuangzi reveals that Daoism and Confucianism are not diametrically opposed schools of Chinese thought, but two strands of single tradition.

Consequently, rather than placing one’s own modern spin to Confucian thought to pursue some political agenda, to understand Confucianism in modern times requires a recognition and appreciation of the philosophy in its original context, and how it interacted with other philosophies that comprised the many intellectual traditions of ancient China.

Confucian Sayings- 儒家的智慧

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Confucianism and Homosexuality in Vietnam- 儒学与同性恋在越南

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Vietnam LGBT

Vietnam represents a mixed picture for many outsiders. Its communist policies and imperial background have been combined with quasi-capitalist elements like the open market, and these differences can be seen throughout Vietnamese society. For example, it is not uncommon to find a marketer selling goods under a communist propaganda poster behind which a French-inspired café serves European coffee. Much of this variety was inspired by years of colonization as well as Đổi Mới (pronounced “doy moy”), the major economic transformation that took place in 1985-86 and officially marked the end of the ban on private commerce after the reunification of northern and southern Vietnam in 1975. Removing barriers on exports and imports and allowing foreign businesses to come in and invest in the country meant that the country was able to reach an average growth rate of 7.5 percent in the 1990s (IMF, 1999). Changes in agricultural policy also helped Vietnam become the world’s third largest rice exporter by 1992, a dramatic change from its status as a rice importer in the 1980s.

These policy changes that continued in the 1990s had a significant social impact on the younger generation. With rising living standards, poverty alleviation, and a general move towards political inclusion, Vietnam’s economic development led to a cultural shift towards individuality and mobility. As Elisabeth Pond (2014) describes in her article ‘Vietnam’s Second Revolution’, the under-30s during this period were:

“…the first in their families to have chosen their own marriage partners rather than accepting a union arranged by parents. They are the first generation to adopt the custom of bringing the toilet from the outhouse into the middle of the home…the first to play a set of tennis before reporting for work in the morning; and the first to eat meals sitting on chairs at raised tables…they are the first generation in five millennia to have known only peace in their lifetime.”

In the long-term, these changes have given Vietnam a reputation of being one of the most organized societies in Southeast Asia (see Pecotich & Shultz, 2016) and one of the most progressive on social issues, such as gay rights. A United Nations Development and USAID report in 2014 highlighted that from 2012, there had been positive media exposure, support from public and governmental organisations, and increasing activism and community events around LGBTQ issues. This approach has been quite different to Vietnam’s neighbours such as Singapore, where the legal system is upholding the law prohibiting same-sex activities, as well as Brunei whose penal code punishes same-sex couples with whipping and long prison sentences (Clayfield, 2015).

However, although the Communist Party of Vietnam has been putting LGBT issues on the agenda for public consultation by legalising same-sex marriage in 2015, many Vietnamese consider homosexuals and members of the gay community as deviants, sinners, and moral transgressors (HIWC, 2018). The discrimination and bullying experienced by those from the gay community reveal that homosexuality is still taboo in a society that remains influenced by Buddhist and Confucian traditions. In their study on ‘homonegativity’ (the adoption and acceptance of homophobic attitudes, beliefs, or actions) and Confucianism, Nguyen and Angelique (2017) found that the patriarchal and collectivist aspects of Confucian tradition, which gives the concept of family loyalty and obedience a central role in defining one’s self-worth and community acceptance (see Analects 1.2, 7.36, and 11.5), has meant that people from the gay community often internalise homonegativity. Rejection by family and friends, failure to take part in education and job programs because of harassment, and exclusion from being seen as a deviant or mentally ill often results in self-esteem issues, feelings of shame, and unhealthy coping habits, including alcohol and drug abuse.

When discussing a power-relationship that involves a dominant and subordinate party, Frantz Fanon spoke about how the colonizer is able to internalise colonialism, which makes colonised peoples internalise the idea of their inferiority as they ultimately come to emulate their oppressors (Fanon, 1967; Mayblin, 2016). The process involves the coloniser inscribing the colonised subject with ideas of backwardness and lack of empathy, dehumanising the other to such an extent that “it turns him into an animal” (Fanon, 1963, p. 42). In her chapter on perceiving the body as inhuman, Dr. Sophie Oliver (2011) writes that symbolic humiliation, such as head shaving or verbal abuse, and loss of personal and public autonomy when one is viewed as an ‘other’, often leads victims to feel as if they no longer belonged to the human community.

While Fanon and Oliver’s theory was directed towards racism, torture, and physical suffering, Nguyen and Angelique’s study reveal that internalised feelings of otherness also occur in minority groups and individuals who do not conform to conventional social expectations. To conduct their research to determine whether a high level of exposure to Confucianism in early life is related to one’s level of internalised homonegativity, 351 people who met the age criteria (18-28) were asked to complete surveys that measured homophobia/transphobia, self-esteem, and Confucian values. Overall, their study found that the strong influence of Confucianism in Vietnamese society, as measured by values of filial piety, strict gender roles, and communalism, was positively related to internalised homonegativity for young people. The authors note that “placing one’s family honor above one’s own authenticity, prioritising parents’ wishes, and granting parents power in decision-making around marriage…provide a fertile background for internalised homonegativity to thrive, despite an otherwise changing culture associated with Đổi Mới” (p. 1626). The pressure to maintain a positive reputation and family image along with the fear of disappointing their parents means that LGBT individuals often operate underground and remain invisible in the public sphere.

Although this study was limited to younger LGBT people and did not account for other influences on internalized homonegativity, including education, class, and location, the results are supported by previous studies on internalized homonegativity and Confucian/collectivist values. For example, Feng et al. (2012) showed that in Vietnam a high endorsement of traditional family structures and gender roles were predictors of negative perceptions of homosexuality. Likewise, Nguyen and Blum (2014) revealed that sexual conservatism was a likely contributor to homosexual intolerance. In a more extensive, qualitative study, Horton and Rydstrom (2011) noted that there were high expectations associated with the role of the son in a typical Vietnamese family that are communicated and reinforced in daily interaction, starting with referring to newborn sons as thang cu (“penis boy”). Such names run counter to ideas of non-heterosexuality, which could threaten the family’s status and the son’s power and success.

In that case, despite making progress on gay rights, Vietnamese society continues to grapple with expectation and reality, between the old and the new. While most of Vietnam remains organised on strong family values and principles of hierarchy and obedience, non-religious, inclusive, and urban aspects are emerging as sexual and gender minorities become more socially visible with the help of organisations and events that support and advocate for LGBT rights. It remains to be seen how conservative traditions such as Confucianism can evolve to deal with these issues in order to remain socially relevant for generations to come.

Course Announcement for Confucian Philosophy at Bond University: Four Questions on Confucianism 关于儒学的四个问题

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Ice cream

Confucius says he would rather give up food than trustworthy conduct (Analects 12.7).

Among the three great Eastern traditions – Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism – it is Confucian Philosophy that speaks most about managing everyday activities, often with reference to “authority” and “propriety”. Thus, the answer would seem obvious: everyone knows that ice cream is not good for you: better control your indulgence. But wait: by what measure does one decide what is good or bad in the first place? Confucius’s teaching concentrates on the concrete, the sensuous, and the things that look simple but can generate profound meaning. It is based on an attitude of honesty and authenticity, and through that, it has significant influence on matters large and small in many Asian societies – and the West.

Self-denial is not one of its values, on the contrary: there can be no authentic, sincere conduct without self-discovery. So indeed: have your scoop of ice cream if you enjoy it. But be sure your joy is sincere.

We explore what it means to learn, to live and to love in a joyful way in the new Subject “PHIL 11-106 Confucian Philosophy: A Philosophy for the Self”, offered from this semester at Bond by Dr. Yi Chen, Assistant Professor of Confucian Philosophy at the Faculty of Society and Design.


Confucius says: it is difficult to serve parents with sincerity …(Analects: 2.8), and it is not trivial to understand what “sincerity” means. He also claims: “To learn and to constantly practice, is it not delightful?” (Analects: 1.1). Joy is an essential part of true learning, thus trying to apply yourself to a subject that you can’t approach with passion is not fruitful, and not sincere. You would exactly not serve your parents if you would embark on a career just to appear to please them. Sometimes, in order to learn you need to teach.

In “PHIL 11-106 Confucian Philosophy: A Philosophy for the Self”, we discuss how filial piety is a core value of Confucianism; it is however never a one-way street, but a balance, built on good intentions and mutual respect.


Confucius says: I have never met anyone who loves virtue as much as he loves appearance. (Analects: 9.18)

You might think Confucianism says: you should not pursue beauty, but be diligent and pursue duty instead. But Confucius’s observation goes deeper than that: careful reading will show you how its ethics are frequently derived from an aesthetic intuition. This is a variation on an old idea about the truth/beauty relationship: beauty is truth. Thus, to be beautiful, one must first be true to oneself. And this sincerity does not conflict with Confucian values, on the contrary: it is the basis from which relationship in society is derived.

In “PHIL 11-106 Confucian Philosophy: A Philosophy for the Self”, we explore how Confucianism’s framework of ethics and aesthetics is constantly referred back to the self, to sincere moral integrity, in order to establish a meaningful map for the adventure of human relationship.


Confucius says: a person without trust is like a chariot without an axle – he can not achieve anything. (Analects: 2.22). That is an intriguing observation: the value of trust lies less in trusting someone, more in allowing others to trust me. This is the basis for an encounter from which trust can arise. The goal is not profit, but friendship – profit, success, valuable relationships will follow naturally.

In “PHIL 11-106 Confucian Philosophy: A Philosophy for the Self”, we discuss how Confucianism – the philosophy of human relationship – is an accomplished basis for stable, sustainable business ethics, a recipe to design society at every scale.

For more information, please contact


Photography: Boris Steipe/Yi Chen (c) 2018.

The Basic Teachings of Confucianism 儒学的基本教义: With Professor Javy W. Galindo

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In this video, Professor Javy W. Galindo introduces the basic concepts, virtues, and teachings of Confucianism, including the meaning of the “superior person” (Junzi), the arts of peace (Wen), and the relationship between self and the community.

Good Grief!- 儒家思想中的悲哀

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Painting by Zhang Hongnian (张红年). Retrieved from here.

Most humans experience intense emotions throughout their lives, such as love, lust, anger, and grief. In its most general sense, the nature of grief is about feeling pain and sadness. First used in 13th century France, grief is defined as the feeling of injustice, misfortune, and calamity, and derives from grever, which means to “afflict, burden, oppress” (Harper, 2017). In Latin, gravare is something which makes heavy or causes grief, coming from gravis– that which is weighty or heavy. While the expression ‘good grief’ has been used since the 1900s to express surprise or dismay, grief is a deep emotional response or a mental state when reacting to the death of someone or loss of something. Bereavement or mourning, on the other hand, indicates the process of grieving. Although there is no timeframe for grieving, mourning is meant to signify a period when grieving can properly take place.

There are many examples of how grieving takes place, and the expression of grief is culturally specific. In other words, how we experience sadness and pain is influenced by our culture’s rituals, customs, and beliefs. Generally, sobbing at the news of the death of a loved one and the experience of shock and sadness is an example of grief. From the Euro-American view, such an experience can be harmful as it destroys an individual’s assumptive world: the condition of one’s reality is altered as the loss of a loved one disrupts one’s social network and emotional health. Thus, Shear and Smith-Caroff (2002) calls the act of grieving a ‘syndrome’ as grieving often induces a person to be shocked, cry, decline to eat, neglect basic responsibilities, and so on. The extent of which grief can affect one’s life was criticised by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), who argued that grief is entirely self-centred and misguided. Since, Epicurus believed that being dead was harmless and we cannot stop death from occurring, the fear of death and sadness for someone’s death is irrational and only harms the griever.

In Chinese philosophy, Zhuang Zhou (370-287 B.C.) had a similar opinion. In the ancient text, the Zhuangzi 莊子, which was written during the late Warring States period, the chapter ‘Perfect Enjoyment’ (至樂) particularly deals with this theme. The story goes that one day, Zhuang Zhou meets with his friend Hui Shi just after Zhuang Zhou’s wife had died. Hui Shi found that Zhuang Zhou was singing joyously and beating on a drum. Astonished, Hui Shi remarked:

“When a wife has lived with her husband, and brought up children, and then dies in her old age, not to wail for her is enough. When you go on to drum on this basin and sing, is it not an excessive (and strange) demonstration?”

Zhang Zhou replied that it is not. Initially, he had been very upset. But after reflecting on the circumstances of her being, and how she came to be through changes in the cosmos- through the intermingling of waste and dark chaos that resulted in change, breath, change again, bodily form, birth, and life- he realised that death represented just another aspect of this cycle. Just as the seasons change, his wife had simply taken part in the process of life. Understanding this, Zhuang Zhou restrained himself and his grief disappeared.

For Confucius, however, grief is not only natural and expected, it is necessary. Although Confucius also suggested looking positively at the transformative stages of life and death, where people should be more concerned about life and care less about the uncertainty of death (Qin & Xia, 2015), ritual and respect were noted to be important factors to consider when reacting to death. As Confucius states in The Analects passage 3.4, “In rites in general, rather than extravagance, better frugality. In funeral rites, rather than thoroughness, better real grief.” Put simply, in following ritual and carrying out the correct mourning practices, one should not be afraid to feel sorrow and confront loss.

In traditional China, ancestor worship was one of the ways which many people could express their grief and sorrow while receiving guidance from those who had passed. The rituals in ancestor worship acted as narratives that connected the family to individuals, their social status, and the land which they once occupied. Researchers from Webster University, Klass and Goss (2003), note that funeral rituals actually developed from Daoism as they were meant to ensure the deceased received what they needed before passing on to the other world. But once Confucianism was popularised in the following dynasties, funeral rites were re-interpreted to fit within a Confucian social framework that represented hierarchy in the family and community. Since the most important family relationship was that of the father and son, and filial piety (xiao, 孝) or respect and obligation was one of the highest regarded virtues, funeral rituals were primarily designed for sons to mourn their fathers. For instance, only the death of a father who had a son merited a full funeral ritual, while all other deaths had only part funerals. Parents whose children had died merited no ritual at all.

Although grieving is culturally monitored in that individuals, families, and communities have rules for how to display and handle emotions of grief, grieving intensively and in ways that transgress ritual was not necessarily prohibited. There is not much information in the Analects on how to respond to those grieving over the death of a loved one, so the passages that describe Confucius’s grief over the death of Yan Hui顏回 are significant. Hui or Yan Hui was one of Confucius’s most celebrated disciples, often portrayed as someone who was wise and dutiful. In passage 6.3, when Duke Ai asked which of Confucius’s disciples loved learning, Confucius replied that it was Yan Hui who never repeated his errors or became agitated. From passages 9.20-9.22, Confucius also describes Yan Hui as never lazy and observant. In that case, when Yan Hui dies Confucius chooses not to hold back on his grief lamenting, “Oh! Tian destroys me! Tian destroys me!” (11.9). When Confucius’s followers state that the Master wails beyond proper bounds, Confucius replies: “Have I? If I do not wail beyond proper bounds for this man, then for whom?” (11.10).

If grief is to be understood as a necessary precondition for the process and ritual of mourning, it is only natural that one expresses emotions that signify sadness, sorrow, or despair. However, to explain Confucius’s expression of grief which went beyond the ‘proper bounds’, it is important to not only consider the relationship between Confucius and Yan Hui, but also the attitude towards death that Confucius demonstrates when losing Hui. As Ivanhoe (2002) and Olberding (2004) highlight, the sorrow of Confucius at the death of his disciple was partly attributable to the way in which Hui’s death was wasteful: Hui was a young person who lived in accordance with the Dao, but did not get to live life to his maximum potential. In addition to this, we can understand the relationship of Confucius and Hui by what the David Hall and Roger Ames (1987) call an “actualization of a mode of being” (p. 178), where a superior person realises or creates ritual through personal signification. Put simply, the “mode of being” for Confucius on the death of Yan Hui does not, and cannot, serve as instruction for all but rather shows Confucius reacting to the moment rather than prescribing action for all.

For Confucius, Yan Hui’s death signified not only the loss of a good student and friend, but the closing of developmental avenues for Confucius himself. With the “dramatic and final rupture in the relationship between him and his treasured disciple, Confucius laments over “the Confucius who never was” (Olberding, 2004, p. 294). To understand the phrase “the Confucius who never was”, it should be noted that the Chinese concept of self is inextricably linked to communal relationships. As a result, when one member of a community is lost, other members of the community are affected in ways where their own sense of selves are altered because of the self’s relational nature. Confucius sense of self was altered in that Hui’s death signified the loss of a friend and the loss of a Confucius who could never be as Confucius could no longer learn by interacting with Hui.

Contrasting the traditional view of Confucianism as a mode of philosophy that suppresses individuality and emotions (see Ho, 1995), the practice of grieving in passage 11.9 Analects highlights that there is flexibility in mourning practices. Sometimes it may be appropriate to transgress ritual if it is useful to help one deal with emotional pain and bereavement. Because we live through others just as others influence, shape, and live through us, grief cannot be a matter of theoretical instruction, but an immediate reality.

The Life of Confucius- An Animation 孔子的生活 – 动画

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Technological advancements have allowed producers to create intelligent storytelling systems that appeal to international audiences. Increasingly, the life story and philosophy of Confucius is being developed through animated imagery that narrates philosophical concepts throughout Confucius’ journey.

The original animation of ‘The Life of Confucius’ can be viewed here.